Muslim leaders in the Spanish autonomous region of Catalonia say they have been promised a mega-mosque in Barcelona if they support independence from Spain in a referendum set for November 9.
Officials from the Catalonia's ruling Convergence and Union Party (CiU) are seeking the ballots of all of the roughly 100,000 Muslims in the region who are eligible to vote. "If you support us in the referendum, there will be a mosque," CiU officials are said to have promised Muslim leaders, according to Spanish media.
The mega-mosque in question is said to involve a 2.2 billion euro ($3 billion) project to convert a historic bullfighting stadium in Barcelona into the third-largest mosque in the world, after those in Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia.
The tentative plan calls for the Emir of Qatar to purchase the stadium, known as the La Monumental, and to cover all costs associated with converting the property into a mosque. The five-year project would be completed sometime around 2020.
The historic bullfighting stadium "La Monumental" in Barcelona may become the largest mosque outside of Saudi Arabia, under a tentative plan worked out between Catalan nationalists and the Emir or Qatar. (Image source: Sergi Larripa/Wikimedia Commons)
The mosque would have an interior capacity for 40,000 worshippers and an exterior capacity for another 80,000. The mosque complex would include a Koranic study center, a library, a conference room and a museum of Islamic art and history.
The mosque would also include a research center on the history of Al Andalus, the Arabic name given to those parts of Spain, Portugal and France that were occupied by Muslim conquerors (also known as the Moors) from 711 to 1492.
Moreover, the mosque would be accompanied by a towering 300-meter (985-foot) minaret which, if approved, would dominate the Barcelona skyline. The proposed minaret would completely overshadow the spectacularly emblematic Sagrada Familia, a Roman Catholic cathedral that is situated less than one kilometer from the bullfighting arena. The spires of the church, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, are only 170 meters (560 feet) tall.
An interior view of "La Monumental" stadium in Barcelona. (Image source: Re Artù/Wikimedia Commons)
Catalonia is home to an estimated 465,000 Muslims, who account for more than 6% of the total Catalan population of 7.5 million. This gives Catalonia the largest Muslim population in Spain.
By way of comparison, if Catalonia were to achieve independence, it would emerge as the country with the third-largest Muslim population in Western Europe, in percentage terms, just behind France and Belgium, and far ahead of Britain and Germany.
Nevertheless, there are no official mosques in Catalonia, and Muslims normally worship in makeshift prayer centers that are located in shops and basements. Although the capital of Catalonia, Barcelona, is home to an estimated 50,000 Muslims, it remains one of the only major cities in Spain without an official mosque.
The Muslim community of Barcelona has pleaded with municipal officials for a purpose-built mosque for more than two decades, and although many promises have been made, none has materialized.
"The law says that everyone has the right to pray in a dignified place, not in a shop," says the leader of the Catalan Islamic Federation, Mowafak Kanfach, who is heading the push to convert the stadium into Barcelona's first real mosque.
The stadium, which opened in 1914, has been closed since January 2012, when a Catalonia-wide ban on bullfighting entered into effect. The current owners of the property, the Balañá Group, are said to be prepared to accept the Qatari offer.
Kanfach says that a "pre-project proposal" was submitted to municipal officials in Barcelona in early 2014. He believes that the project stands a good chance of being approved because the Qatar Foundation, a non-profit organization founded by the current Emir's father, already has a strong presence in the city, and the state-owned Qatar Airways sponsors Barcelona's football team.
But a leader of the Catalan branch of the center-right Popular Party (PPC), Alberto Fernández Díaz, says the mega-mosque is "not suitable" for Barcelona because the "people and countries" involved in the project may have "values which collide with ours."
Others are worried that the mosque could become a hub for Islamic terrorism. Analysts say that Catalonia, which has the largest concentration of radical Islamists in Europe, is already a main center for Salafi-Jihadism on the continent and has the potential to become one of the top incubators for Islamist terrorism in the West.
Adding to those concerns, at least three Muslim proponents of the mega-mosque with close links to the CiU have recently been tied to radical Islam.
Spanish counter-terrorism officials say that the individual representing Pakistani immigrants within the CiU, Khalid Shabaz (aka Chuhan), is believed to "hold extreme ideological views." He was arrested in 2011 for fraud and document forgery. During a recent trip to Pakistan, Chuhan was photographed wearing traditional Pakistani dress and holding an assault rifle in his hands.
Shabaz's right-hand man, Shaoib Satti, was arrested in January 2013 for heroin trafficking in a major Catalan anti-narcotics sting operation. Noureddine Ziani, a well-known Moroccan proponent of the Barcelona mega-mosque, was deported in May 2013 because the Spanish intelligence agency CNI considered him to pose "a grave danger to the security of Spain."
Kanfach counters concerns about terrorism by saying that the citizens of Barcelona "should be proud that Muslims are transforming the pain of the bulls into a spiritual center."
City officials have so far denied that the mosque project even exists, possibly to forestall public opposition to the plans.
Kanfach says that Catalan nationalism is at play in the official denials. "The only reason they are denying the existence of the project is clear," Kanfach claims. "They want Catalan construction companies to have part of the pie. They do not care whether or not the project is 'in the local interest,' they simply want guarantees that Catalan, and not Spanish, companies will get contracts."
According to Spanish media reports, the project as currently envisioned involves only German firms. So far, the Emir of Qatar, Hamad bin Tamim al-Thani, has commissioned KSP Engel, Zimmermann Architekten and Krebs und Kiefer International.
In mid-July, the PPC called for a vote on a proposed municipal regulation that would prohibit the stadium from being used for religious purposes. The CiU abstained from voting on the basis that it cannot vote against a project that does not exist. All of Barcelona's other political groupings rejected the proposed regulation on the grounds that it was "discriminatory and incoherent."
It remains unclear whether Catalan Muslim leaders will rally Muslim voters for Catalan independence in the absence of clear guarantees on the mosque issue.
Catalan multiculturalists have long attempted to bribe Muslim immigrants into voting for Catalan independence. Catalan pro-independence activists, for example, often post signs in front of unofficial mosques around Catalonia which state that "Catalan sovereignty will help to integrate Muslim immigrants."
Muslim mass immigration has been a key component of the Catalan independence movement for many decades. In an effort to promote Catalan nationalism and the Catalan language, Catalonian pro-independence parties have deliberately promoted immigration from Arabic-speaking Muslim countries for more than three decades, in the belief that these immigrants (unlike those from Latin America) would learn the Catalan language rather than speak Spanish.
But many of those immigrants are attached to Salafism, a radically anti-Western ideology that seeks to impose Islamic Sharia law in Catalonia and other parts of Europe.
In an ominous sign for the future of Catalonia, Salafi preachers—who reject democracy because it is a form of government designed by man rather than by Allah—are calling on Muslims who are eligible to vote to support Catalan separatist parties as a means firmly to establish Islamism in Catalonia.
Consider Abdelwahab Houzi, a Salafi jihadist preacher in the Catalan city of Lleida who adheres to the radical Wahhabi sect of Islam. He recently declared: "Muslims should vote for pro-independence parties, as they need our votes. But what they do not know is that, once they allow us to vote, we will all vote for Islamic parties because we do not believe in left and right. This will make us win local councils and as we begin to accumulate power in the Catalan autonomous region, Islam will begin to be implemented."
Soeren Kern is a Senior Fellow at the New York-based Gatestone Institute. He is also Senior Fellow for European Politics at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter.